The Doobie Brothers

Virginia Beach, Virginia is where my mind goes when I hear The Doobie Brothers’ “Listen To The Music”.  The moment was in 1972 when I was driving between home and work, and The Doobie Brothers’ first hit was coming out of the dashboard.  I loved it.  Their timing was perfect for the country rock sound.  The Eagles had “Take It Easy” just a couple months earlier.  Neil Young and America were on the charts.  The acoustic singer-songwriter movement was strong.  Even The Hollies had a country sounding “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress”.

“Listen To The Music” instantly sounded like a hit.  “What people need is a way to make them smile.” sang Tom Johnston.  He says the music to the song (which he wrote first) made him feel like it should have an uplifting message, and music could make people feel better.  The song still works.  Using a banjo and acoustic guitars in the mix dropped it right into feel good country rock, and it’s topped off with excellent harmonies!

Toulouse Street was the album.  The title song, by another songwriter and lead guitarist, Patrick Simmons, features subtle guitar work, beautiful harmonies, and even a flute, which was probably played by Patrick Simmons on keyboard.  However, chosen as the second single from the album was “Jesus Is Just Alright” which made it into the top 40.  The song had been on the “Easy Rider” movie soundtrack, as performed by The Byrds.

Now that “Listen To The Music” had broken the ice for them, The Doobie Brothers came back with a solid top 10 album, The Captain And Me, in 1973.  The Doobies could definitely rock.  They were one of the few groups to feature two drummers, and two lead guitarists.  “Long Train Runnin'” was their first top 10 single, followed by another rocker, “China Grove”.  Tom Johnston says the songs were built around guitar riffs, and then lyrics written to fit the feel.

Johnston was also the songwriter for the bluesy standout album track “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman”, but it was Patrick Simmons who wrote my favorite, “South City Midnight Lady”, which is actually a tribute to San Jose, rather than any particular woman.  Besides a great arrangement and cool playing by the band, it features steel guitar by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter who would join the Doobie Brothers a year later when Steely Dan stopped touring.

In early 1974, it looked like the Doobie Brothers might loose momentum.  The album What Once Were Vices Are Now Habits was released, along with the single “Another Park, Another Sunday”.  The single barely cracked the Top 40, and a follow up “Eyes Of Silver” didn’t.  Months passed, and then radio stations came to their rescue.  As more FM stations began to play album tracks, they zeroed in on “Black Water”, which had been the B-side to “Another Park”.  Warner Brothers took the hint, and released “Black Water” as a single.  It was their first to hit #1 (not until March of 1975), and pulled the album to #4.

All the touring was beginning to take it’s toll.  The Doobie Brothers 1975 album Stampede had no original hits, but their remake of “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me)” did make it to #11.  Lead singer and one of the two major songwriters, Tom Johnston, was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer.

Jeff Baxter suggested another Steely Dan musician, Michael McDonald, could take over the major portion of the lead singing, and add keyboards.  Thus began…The Doobie Brothers, Phase Two.

Michael McDonald gave the band a new direction and sound.  He also wrote their next two hits…”Takin’ It To The Streets” and “It Keeps You Running” for the Takin’ It To The Streets album in 1976, and it was a top 10 success.

Their 1977 album, Living On The Fault Line, was fairly successful, but there were no hit singles.  It did include a version of “You Belong To Me” that McDonald co-wrote with Carly Simon, and hit #6 for her.

Co-writing was about to pay off for McDonald and The Doobie Brothers.  The co-writer, Kenny Loggins, and the song, “What A Fool Believes”.  It hit #1 in February of 1979, and won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.  The album was Minute by Minute, and “Dependin’ On You” and “Minute by Minute” were the album’s other two hits.

Despite all the success with the R&B leanings of this version of the band, there were disagreements and some membership changes.  The final album of The Doobie Brothers, Phase Two was released in September of 1980, One Step Closer.  It had the hits “Real Love” and “One Step Closer”, but was a definite come down from Minute by Minute.

In 1981, The Doobie Brothers disbanded.

Phase Three didn’t start until six years later.  Members of the band got together to play a 1987 benefit for Vietnam Veterans.  Eventually, the original Tom Johnston/Patrick Simmons lineup reunited for the album Cycles in 1989.  They scored a top 10 hit with “The Doctor”, and the album reached #17.

Although they continued to record, Phase Three has really been about playing live shows for their fans.  When Classic Rock radio station KTGL “The Eagle” in Lincoln, NE wanted to celebrate their 10th anniversary in 1997, The Doobie Brothers played for the event at The Bob Devaney Sports Center.  They sounded great!  The band members all signed a large banner commemorating the event, and for all I know it’s still framed and hanging on a wall at the radio station.

I checked to see what the band is doing now.  I found out they’re currently on a tour of the East Coast.  That tour will end with a performance in…Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Creedence Clearwater Revival

Once they took flight, Creedence Clearwater Revival was like a shooting star.

After early band names The Blue Velvets, and The Golliwogs…John Fogerty (lead guitar & vocals), his brother Tom Fogerty (guitar), Stu Cook (bass & keyboards), and Doug Clifford (drums) settled on the name Creedence Clearwater Revival.  They say the name was a combination of a friend (Credence, they changed the spelling), a beer commercial (clear water) and getting the band together after various interruptions (revival).

(John Fogerty, Doug Clifford, Tom Fogerty, and Stu Cook)

Their first album Creedence Clearwater Revival was released in 1968.  It didn’t make a big splash, but their remake of “Suzie Q” received airplay, and made it to number eleven in Billboard.  Things would get better in 1969.

John Fogerty has said in interviews that he felt the next album had to be good…that it was make or break for the band.  He took control.  Fogerty wrote the songs, sang the songs, played lead guitar, and frankly limited input from the other band members.  Their second album, Bayou Country, released January 5th, 1969 was not a great album, but it contained a great single, “Proud Mary”.  This was the song that launched the band.

The other strong song on the album is “Born On The Bayou”.  The term “Swamp Rock” was applied to the music of this group from California.  It was a sound Fogerty liked, and it paid off.  “Proud Mary” went to #2 on the Hot 100 chart.  Creedence would go on to have a total of 5 singles reach the #2 position in Billboard, and never had a  #1 single out of 17 Top 40 hits.

The LP cover represents John Fogerty’s place in the band.

CCR’s second album of 1969 (June), Green River, was a perfect follow up, and John Fogerty says it’s their best.  It went to #1 on the album charts, and included “Bad Moon Rising”, “Lodi”, “Commotion”, “Wrote A Song For Everyone”, “Cross Tie Walker”, and of course “Green River”.  CCR was all over AM & FM radio.  The local band I was in at the time, The Rock & Soul Society,  played “Proud Mary”, “Bad Moon Rising” and “Lodi” as part of our regular set list.

Creedence was not done with 1969.  In October, Willy And The Poor Boys was released.  It made it to #3 on the album chart, and included “Down On The Corner”, “Fortunate Son”, and a great remake of “Midnight Special”.  The year was like a successful career for some bands…3 albums , 7 hit singles, and a lot more album cuts getting FM airplay.

More success was on the way, but unfortunately, the band was having internal struggles.  The other members of the band were not happy with John Fogerty’s almost total domination.  John, who can play all the instruments well, didn’t want to relinquish control, because he thought their recordings would suffer.  John was writing the songs, arranging them, and producing them, besides singing lead, playing lead guitar, and adding other instruments.

The result was another #1 album in July of 1970, Cosmo’s Factory.  It’s right there with Green River in vying for best album.  Cosmo’s Factory includes “Travelin’ Band”, “Who’ll Stop The Rain”, “Up Around The Bend”, “Run Through The Jungle”, and “Looking Out My Back Door”.  That’s 5 hits on one album, and it was their 4th album in just over a year and a half!

My old 45 sleeve from 1970.  Not a happy band.

December of 1970 brought the release of Pendulum.  It was the band’s 6th album and included two hits…”Hey Tonight”, and “Have You Ever Seen The Rain”.  Fogerty has said that the line “Have you ever seen the rain comin’ down on a sunny day?” referred to all the problems the band was having amidst all the success.  After this album, John’s brother, Tom, quit the band.

Which brings us to 1972 and CCR’s last album Mardi Gras.  It was anything but a party.  Famous Rolling Stone reviewer John Landau called it “the worst album I have ever heard from a major rock band.”  What was different about it?  Fogerty decided to relinquish control, and let the other members write songs, sing, and produce on it.  Two Fogerty songs from it were hits…”Sweet Hitch Hiker” and “Someday Never Comes”, but they’re hardly among CCR’s best songs.  Creedence broke up.

Creedence Clearwater Revival had been the most popular band in the country in 1969, 1970, and into early 1971…but they burned out quickly.  Their recordings remain among the most popular from the era.

The animosity among the band members has never been reconciled.  Even when CCR was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 John Fogerty played with musicians that did not include Stu Cook or Doug Clifford.  Fogerty’s brother Tom had passed away at age 48 (in 1990) from an infection following back surgery.

Cook and Clifford tried to tour as Creedence Clearwater Revival, but were forced to change the name to Creedence Clearwater Revisited.

John Fogerty felt that their label, Fantasy Records, had taken advantage of his band, and had never restructured CCR’s contract to more favorable terms.  The legal dispute would delay his own solo success for over a decade.

Eventually, John Fogerty had a solid solo career, and made peace with his own CCR legacy.  Because his solo career deserves more space, it will have to be in another article.  We’ll catch up with “The Old Man Down The Road”.

(The John Fogerty article is now available.)

Linda Ronstadt…Queen of Rock & Roll

What a Voice!  Radio listeners first heard Linda Ronstadt’s strong clear singing voice in 1967 on “Different Drum” by the Stone Poneys.   It wasn’t until 3 years later that she was back in the top 40 with “Long Long Time”.

Linda was putting out albums and touring during the early 70’s, but it wasn’t until late 1974 when Peter Asher produced Heart Like A Wheel (one of the best albums of the decade) that her career took off.  By 1975. The single “You’re No Good” (with great guitar work by Andrew Gold) went to #1.  At the same time, she had the #2 song on the Country Chart “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You), the #1 album on the Billboard Top 200 chart, and the #1 album on the Country chart.  Linda Ronstadt had arrived!

Heart Like A Wheel is terrific.  Backing her on the record was a vast list of talented performers…including J.D. Souther, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, David Lindley, Timothy B. Schmidt, and (with beautiful harmonies) Emmylou Harris.  “When Will I Be Loved” was another big hit.  “Willin’ (by Little Feat), and “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” got lots of airplay.  The LP also has my favorite recording by her…”Fathless Love”…a duet with the man who wrote the song, John David Souther.

From there, she was trail-blazing for female artists.  She had straight Platinum Albums, no woman had ever had more than 2.  The 7 platinum albums that came after Heart Like A Wheel were:  Prisoner In Disguise, Hasten Down The Wind, Simple Dreams, Greatest Hits, Living In The USA, Mad Love, and Greatest Hits 2.  In 1982, Get Closer fell just short of becoming her 9th straight Platinum album (sales of at least one-million copies).  In total, she had 13 solo platinum albums.  Ronstadt also had 21 Top 40 singles, and won 11 Grammy Awards.

Linda Ronstadt was on countless magazine covers.  Rolling Stone, which had her on the cover 6 times, declared her The Queen Of Rock & Roll.

We were lucky to see Linda Ronstadt in concert in 1980.  Her voice and her performance were absolutely amazing!  The moment I remember best was her final encore.  She came out only with pianist Bill Payne of Little Feat.  Then she filled the auditorium with a beautifully clear and soulful rendition of “Desperado”.  Update:  Now a concert from that 1980 tour has been preserved.

In February 2019, Ronstadt’s 1980 concert performance was released as Live In Hollywood.  That tour featured some of L.A.’s best musicians, and the 12-song set is a great listen all the way through.  What an excellent record of that time in her career!

In 1983 she starred in the musical “Pirates of Penzance” on Broadway.  She was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical Actress, and the musical won a Tony Award as Best Musical Revival.

Ronstadt had conquered pop and country (4 #1 country albums), and had success on Broadway, so what was next?  An album of Jazz/Pop standards.  People thought she was crazy and bound to fail.

In 1983 her first album of standards What’s New sold 3.7 million copies!  She did two more…Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons…both Platinum selling.

Linda Ronstadt grew up in Tucson, Arizona.  Spanish was spoken and sung in her family.  Linda decided she wanted to do an album of traditional Mexican Folk songs.  No one would have predicted that it would sell, but Canciones de mi Padre (Songs of my Father) sold over 2-million copies…making it the biggest-selling non-English-language album in U.S. music history!

Linda Ronstadt had success into the ’90’s (back in Pop music) with “Somewhere Out There”, a duet with James Ingram, “Don’t Know Much” and “All My Life”, both duets with Aaron Neville.  All three songs won Grammy Awards.  Also, her album Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind went triple-platinum.

After three decades of unprecedented success in so many areas, her career slowed down.  In 2011 she announced her retirement, and later she revealed she has Parkinson’s Disease, and is “unable to sing a note”.

Finally, in 2014, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame…20 years after she had become eligible!  There are male performers who got in the hall for having one or two hits!  Shame on the voters for waiting until one of America’s greatest and most successful voices had been silenced.

Sgt. Pepper’s Remix…Worth It? (updated)

On the 50th anniversary of the original release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Apple released a brand new mix.  This is not some simple remaster, they actually went back to the original tapes from before they were dubbed down to make room for more voices or instruments, and before mixing.  This process provides the best sound possible.

The remixing was done over a couple of years by Giles Martin, son of the extraordinary Beatles producer George Martin.  His goal was to make a stereo version that approximated the mono mix that George Martin and the Beatles worked on for weeks, and had considered the main presentation of the album.

There’s no doubt Giles achieved the goal.  This is the best Sgt. Pepper has sounded.  It has a fullness to it, and the voices and instruments are properly centered and mixed.

But…does that mean you should buy it?

The bottom line is…the remastered CD that was done in 2009 is great, and the recordings sound exactly as you remember them.  The new mix is even better, but unless you listen to them closely through a good sound system, you might not be able to hear much difference in quality.   If you never bought the 2009 version, or simply want the best sounding version, get the remix.

Warning:  There’s a problem with buying the album from an online music service like iTunes, instead of an actual CD.  When songs segue into each other such as “Sgt. Pepper” into “With A little Help From My Friends”, and “Sgt. Pepper (Reprise)” into “A Day In The Life”, there can be an audible flaw in the smoothness of the transition.  That’s because the cuts are sold separately online, and they don’t necessarily come together well.

Update:  Sgt. Pepper engineer Geoff Emerick, in a discussion with writer Bob Lefsetz, says that claiming the original stereo mix was rushed is “rubbish”.  Emerick says the stereo mix was discussed with The Beatles, and then a lot of time was spent “getting it just right”.  That’s the version you hear on the 2009 remaster, because remastering doesn’t alter the mix of the voices and instruments.

Update 2: Giles Martin wrote to Bob Lefsetz in response.  He said “I was initially against the idea, let’s face it, no one has ever said Sgt. Pepper sounded bad.”  But…”as Paul and Ringo told us, and my dad had mentioned in the past, something that the mono had, had been taken away by the quick stereo mix that everyone knows.”  Martin went on to mention that “no kids are going to seek out the mono, the record that the band mixed.  So we made a stereo mix using the same care, attention and process that the band did 50 years ago.”  In his article, Bob Lefsetz had called it a “cash grab”.  Giles Martin responded…”I completely understand your point, but from those of us involved in the project all we are trying to do is celebrate the music.”

The new Super Deluxe remixed version is for hard-core fans.

I’ve never bought a high-priced super deluxe version of anything before, but it came out near my birthday…that’s my excuse.

The box is basically the size of an album, but is deep enough to hold a 144 page hard cover book of articles and photos, plus 4 CD’s and 2 DVD’s.  The cover on the box is a 3D photo sleeve that covers a replica of the studio tape box.  The best deal we found was $118 through Amazon.

The extra CD’s are filled with earlier takes of songs.  This gives some insight into how the final versions developed.  But, how interested are you, and will you listen to them more than once?  You may remember that “Strawberry Fields Forever” (recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions) is made up of two different takes.  One take is slower, and the faster take has added horns, strings, and more.  You get them both.  I also really like the complete instrumental bed for “She’s Leaving Home”…strings and a harp, simply beautiful.

One DVD is Blue Ray, and the other is standard.  They contain the same videos, the 1992 documentary “The Making of Sgt. Pepper” and the classic videos of “Penny Lane”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and “A Day In he Life”.  Plus, the audio for Sgt. Pepper is 5.1 surround sound.

“The Making of Sgt. Pepper” video is marvelous.  George Martin (with a little help from his friends) tells us how the album was made.  He sits at the mixing board and adjusts the volumes on voices and instruments to demonstrate various aspects of the recordings.  What a great format!  This is the basis of so many similar documentaries, such as the “Classic Albums” series.

Everything about the Super Deluxe version is first class, but it’s definitely overpriced…unless you’re a spoiled Beatles fan with a wife willing to make it your birthday gift.

(Note:  The next remix, The White Album, came out November 9th, 2018.  You can read my review on this site.  It sounds even better!)

James Taylor…Singer-Songwriter

It’s like the term singer-songwriter was invented for him.  He certainly was right at the beginning of the 1970’s phenomenon.  There have always been artists who wrote and performed their own songs, but in the ’70’s it became a category, and JT was leading the way.

We became aware of James Taylor when he recorded for Apple Records.  He was the first artist signed to Apple by Peter Asher (formerly of Peter & Gordon).  Taylor’s self-titled album was released in late 1968.  It’s most notable for two songs, “Carolina In My Mind” (Paul McCartney played bass & George Harrison sang backup) and “Something In the Way She Moves”.  George liked that second title so much he used it as the basis for his own song on Abbey Road.  “Something” doesn’t actually sound like JT’s song, and he was fine with it.  He’s always been complimentary about his time with The Beatles, and loved watching them record The White Album.

Despite the album, James Taylor, being less than a sales success, it’s a good first album.  Fortunately for all of us, producer Peter Asher even came to the United States to continue working with James when he signed with Warner Brothers.  Asher also produced Linda Ronstadt’s best albums.

James Taylor and Peter Asher found that a little less-produced, more personal style was the answer to success.  In February of 1970, Sweet Baby James was released.  People were introduced to the hits “Fire and Rain”, “Country Road” and “Sweet Baby James”.  Actually, “Sweet Baby James” was released as a single and didn’t even chart in the Top-40.  That’s because so many people bought the album instead!

Carole King played piano on Sweet Baby James, and ended up touring with him.  She is one of the world’s great songwriters, and this was the time when she was becoming a performing artist.  James heard one of her new songs, and got her permission to record it for his next album.

“You’ve Got A Friend” shot to #1 in mid 1971, and by then everybody knew James Taylor.  The album Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon also included “You Can Close Your Eyes” and “Long Ago And Far Away”.  The latter featured Joni Mitchell on vocals and Carole King on piano…you’ve got friends indeed.

He also has my wife as his friend…on Facebook.  James (as we call him) is Jeannette’s absolute favorite artist, and we have all of his albums.  He has maintained an active career, and still fills large venues, so we’ll just touch on some of the musical highlights.

James Taylor’s next five albums are all high quality…One Man Dog, Walking Man, Gorilla, In The Pocket, and JT.  Along with the first three albums, these hold the bulk of his truly classic recordings.  Songs include: “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You”, “Shower The People”, “Handy Man”, “The Secret O’ Life”, and “Your Smiling Face”.  Those are just a sample of great songs you’ll find on those albums.  Many of our favorites are album cuts rather than singles.  Of his later albums, New Moon Shine and Hourglass stand out.

Attending a James Taylor concert is always special.  His voice, even now, is a rich baritone, his style is down-home casual, and it’s obvious how much he loves music and performing.  You’re wrapped in a warm & friendly place.

We’ve been attending his concerts for decades.  At one of the earlier concerts, we were in the 5th row center (before scalpers).  James came out with just his acoustic guitar and impressively performed some of his songs for us.  As he went into one of my wife’s favorites “Wandering” we said to each other that the song needed the beautiful harmony.  As he hit that part of the song, the lights went on behind a black see-through curtain, and his back-up singers and band turned it into magic!

The above photo is from when we saw him in Portland in 2014 (tickets thanks to our friends at the Bicoastal radio stations here in Eugene).  Last year he came to our town (photo below).  He can still touch people with his songs, like when he ended the concert with one of his newest ones “You And I Again”.

The singer-songwriter movement in the ’70’s brought us some of the best songs of our lives.  It’s amazing how well those recordings hold up, and it’s satisfying to see James Taylor loves his work.

(Another photo I took at the Portland concert)

The Zombies…British Invasion Band

Zombies are popular.  There’s “The Walking Dead”, “iZombie”, and any number of B-movies.  My favorite Zombies (sounds like another TV show) are the ones that were part of the “British Invasion”.

“She’s Not There” was a big hit for The Zombies that peaked at #2 in November of ’64.  The recording featured a great bass line by Chris White, an exciting Keyboard solo by Rod Argent, and a cool distinctive vocal from Colin Blunstone.  These guys were gonna be big!

In fact, their second single “Tell Her No” was another top ten hit (#6) just three months later.   And then…they were dead.

They had toured the U.S., and were more popular here than in England, but in 1965 and 1966, there were no more hits.  In a last ditch effort in 1967, they recorded an album for CBS Records in England.  Most of Odessey & Oracle was recorded at Abbey Road studios on the same 4-track recorder as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick.  They even used the same synthesizer Paul McCartney played for “Strawberry Fields Forever”.  Their recording budget was spent, so Rod Argent and Chris White (who had earned the most money as the songwriters) ended up paying for a stereo mix themselves.  At the end of 1967, and before the album was released, The Zombies broke up.  When the album was finally out in England in April of 1968, it wasn’t a hit.  Rest in Peace Zombies.

But as you know, you can’t keep a good Zombie down.  The Zombies came back to life when Al Kooper, a musician, producer, and songwriter with Columbia Records, discovered the album in a stack of records their English company, CBS, had given him.  Kooper loved the album, and convinced Columbia to release it in the U.S. on their Date label.

Date wisely chose “Time Of The Season” for the single.  Released in late 1968, the song peaked at #3 in early 1969.  Better late than never.

I liked The Zombies, so I picked up Odessey & Oracle in 1969.  It’s basically a pop/rock album with a psychedelic and baroque feel.  It should have been released in 1967 when it was recorded, because it fits that time perfectly.  The songs, the arrangements, and sound are first rate.  It never was a top selling album, but it has obtained cult status, and was ranked by Rolling Stone as the 100th best album in their Top 500.  When you think of how many albums have been released, that ranking is amazing!

Among the highlights are “A Rose For Emily”, “Maybe After He’s Gone”, “Beechwood Park”, “This Will Be Our Year”, and of course “Time Of The Season”.  Trivia #1:  Since “Time Of The Season” was not a hit in England, American Idol Judge Simon Cowell said he had never heard that song when contestant Blake Lewis sang it on the show.  Trivia #2:  The misspelling of odyssey in the title was a mistake by the cover artist, not intentional as the band originally claimed.

Singer Colin Blunstone went on to a low-key solo career.  His smokey singing style is his signature sound, and he put it to good effect on his albums Year OneEnnismore (1972, my favorite), and others.  He also did some lead vocals for the Alan Parsons Project, including “Old And Wise” from the Eye In The Sky album.

Keyboardist and songwriter Rod Argent went on to form the group “Argent” which had the #5 hit “Hold Your Head Up”.  He’s also done solo work, keyboard sessions, composed TV themes, and produced other artists.  He even toured with Ringo Starr’s All Star Band in 1999.

My 4 CD Box Set.  They only released 2 albums!

The Zombies walked the earth again…with an album in 1991, a reunion in 2004, and 3 albums since then.  Also, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone perform live as The Zombies when it’s the time of the season for touring.

Update:  The Zombies are in the 2019 class of artists being inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.

Neil Young

A great songwriter, but not a great voice.  Neil Young?  Bob Dylan? Kris Kristofferson?  It could apply to a lot of singer-songwriters.

Neil Young knows he’s not a great singer.  When he was with Buffalo Springfield he even let Richie Furay take the lead vocals on several of his songs.  People who don’t like Neil Young because of his voice are missing so much great music!   Neil has a way of conveying songs that make them uniquely excellent.

Maybe no one’s keeping track, but Neil Young may be the most prolific songwriter ever.  He’s done over 40 albums of original material, and that doesn’t include live albums or collections.

His 1st solo album is Neil Young (might as well get your name known).  The January 1969 release featured “The Loner” (among other good songs).  Just four months later (prolific!), Young released Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with his band Crazy Horse.  It has the classic rock tracks “Cinnamon Girl”, “Down By The River”, and “Cowgirl In The Sand”.  Then in August (still 1969), he joined the band that became known as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with former Buffalo Springfield bandmate Stephen Stills.  Deja Vu.

Looking back, Neil Young wasn’t really a member of the group, he was much more like a guest star.  Since 1969, Young has only contributed 10 songs to three studio albums that were many years apart.  That’s why they’re called CSN & sometimes Y.  Of course he performed live with CS&N many times, and there is that one truly classic single… “Ohio”…about the killing of 4 Kent State students by National Guardsmen.

Joining CSN made him famous.  He used that notoriety very well with a high-quality solo album in 1970, the same year as Deja Vu.  The title was, appropriately, After The Gold Rush.  It’s filled with good songs, including “Tell Me Why”, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, “I Believe In You”, “Birds (It’s Over)”, and “Southern Man”.  CS&N probably wondered where those songs were when they put together Deja Vu.

Young then released what is generally considered his best album, 1972’s Harvest.  It has his only big hit, “Heart Of Gold”, which featured Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor on vocals, and “Old Man” on which JT played the banjo part.  Other cuts include “A Man Needs A Maid”, “The Needle And The Damage Done”, and “Alabama”.  That last song, along with “Southern Man” from his previous album, really ticked off Lynyrd Skynyrd.  “Sweet Home Alabama” became a huge hit for them as they bashed Neil Young in the lyrics.  Afterwards, they became friends.  Fun fact:  “Heart Of Gold” was knocked out of the #1 position by a song that sounded like Neil Young…”A Horse With No Name” by America.

Neil Young turned away from the success of Harvest by releasing some of his least commercial albums…Time Fades Away (a live album of new material, only very recently made available again)…On The Beach …and… Tonight’s The Night (a stark album partially about the drug deaths of friends).  A famous quote from Neil:  ” ‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.”  Those three albums are known by fans as “The Ditch Trilogy”.

Critics and core fans now look back favorably on these albums.  I bought the albums as they were released, and like some songs from all of them.   My personal favorite cut is “See The Sky About To Rain” from On The Beach.

It would take lots of articles (or books) to cover Neil Young, so here are some selected musical moments.

Besides the singles “Long May You Run” with Stephen Stills, and “Like A Hurricane”, the next commercial popularity for Neil Young was the album Comes A Time in 1978.  It was a return to the country-rock sound, with lots of great songs and vocal help from Nicolette Larson, who had a hit with “Lotta Love”, a song from the album.

Neil Young ended the 1970’s with some of his best work…Rust Never Sleeps.  It includes both his acoustic and electric sides.  Two versions of the same song, with slightly different lyrics, bookend the album.  “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).  The first is acoustic, and the second is an electric all-out Rock song.  A career-spanning live album followed…Live Rust.   Good stuff.

Apparently success makes Neil Young turn the other way. His albums in the ’80’s were so non-commercial that his new label, Geffen, sued him for not recording “typical Neil Young albums”.  There were 9 albums between 1980 and 1989.  They varied a lot in musical styles and quality.  Again, I like some of the songs, even from Trans (1982), which apparently some fans hate.  They just couldn’t handle the Synth Rock sound of Neil’s voice electronically altered through a “Vocoder”.  I like “Transformer Man”, the reworking of “Mr. Soul”, and especially “Sample And Hold”…the original vinyl version is best.  Unfortunately, the CD has a different mix.  1988’s This Note’s For You got noticed for the popular video with Young saying he’s “not singing for Pepsi, not singing for Coke”…instead, “this note’s for you”.  I love the bluesy song “One Thing” from the same album.

Neil returned to Reprise Records in 1989, and what do you know…he made a “typical Neil Young album”…Freedom.  It has acoustic and electric versions of “Rockin’ In The Free World”.  When he did a radio concert for the album, he performed a great version of “Someday” with just piano and voice.  It’s way better than the album version, which is burdened with sound effects and odd background voices.

Another solid Neil Young album followed…Ragged Glory (1990).  Harvest Moon in 1992 pleased even more of his fans.  For some reason, Neil must have wanted back into the middle of the road.  Harvest Moon and Comes A Time are the most Harvest-like of his albums.

And then he recorded another 18 albums!  Can’t get into them all, but here’s my “Neil Young’s Best Vol. 4” playlist (1992-2014).

Neil Young has musically gone wherever his mood and muse have taken him…rock, country, electronic, grunge, folk, jazz/blues, experimental.  No one is going to like everything he’s done.  Music is subjective.  We listen to what we like.  Neil Young has given us a lot to like during his long run.

Crosby, Stills & Nash (The Album)

Their previous groups were so good.  The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Hollies.  By 1968, David Crosby had left The Byrds, and Stephen Stills’ group, Buffalo Springfield, had broken up.  The Hollies played L.A., and Graham Nash (who met Crosby in 1966) was hanging out with friends.  He heard David and Stephen singing a new song, “You Don’t Have To Cry”.  Eventually, Graham added a high harmony to their vocals…and Crosby, Stills & Nash was born.  Of course Nash had to leave the Hollies, and there were legal aspects to clear up, but we know it happened.

Crosby, Stills & Nash featured three guys who could all write songs, sing lead, sing harmony, and play multiple instruments.  The album was presented to the world on May 29th, 1969.

Each songwriter was introduced right away.  It starts with “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Stephen Stills, “Marrakesh Express” by Graham Nash, and “Guinevere” by David Crosby.  That’s the “snapshot” of the group.  Stills is a rocker with a folk/country edge, Nash has more of a pop sound, and Crosby the free-spirited hippie.  All three are far more musically complex than that, but these songs do give you a feel for them.

                                                     Stephen Stills & Sweet Judy (Collins) Blue Eyes.

Stills turned his love and breakup with his girlfriend into a classic recording… “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”.  The suite of melodies displays all of CSN’s strengths in about seven-and-a-half-minutes.  There was also an edited version (4:36) for AM stations.  It was a time when only FM stations played the “long” album versions.  Stills played all the instruments on “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, and handled the majority of the instrumentation for the rest of the album.  By the way, it would seem that Stills’ excellent Buffalo Springfield songs “Bluebird” and “Rock and Roll Woman” were also inspired by Judy Collins.  They’re still friends, and the two have recently done a series of concerts together.

“Marrakesh Express” was the first single.  This was Graham Nash starting a trend of coming up with solid commercial songs for the group.  He says he presented the song to The Hollies, and they recorded it, but never released it.  Nash’s writing kept developing, and he contributed some of the group’s most popular songs.  Another of his songs that stands out on CSN’s first album is the gently beautiful “Lady Of The Island”.

David Crosby was never a “commercial” songwriter, but he gave the trio a distinctive sound with beautifully atmospheric songs like “Guinevere”, and a social conscience with songs like “Long Time Gone”.  Crosby and Nash are both great harmony singers, and “Guinevere” represents the first time we heard the delicate blending of their voices.  Actually, the first time I listened to the album I only had time to hear those first three songs, and “Guinevere” confirmed I’d made a good purchase.

Recent releases of old recordings, like the Just Roll Tape album of Stephen Stills demos from 1968,  and the CS&N Demos  collection from ’68 & ’69 have revealed more about what was musically happening as they put together their first album.

The Stills release is a revelation.  It’s just him and his acoustic guitar running through a bunch of new songs as the tape runs in a studio.  This was in April of 1968 before Crosby, Stills & Nash had formed.  Already, he had “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, “Helplessly Hoping” and “Wooden Ships”.  It shows that Stills was the primary writer of “Wooden Ships”.  The song had everything except the introduction section with two people on the opposite sides of a war.

The stunning thing is how many more songs he already had that would appear on future albums.  “So Begins he Task”, “Do For The Others”, “Know You Got To Run”, “Change Partners”, “Black Queen” and “Treetop Flyer”.  How in the world could he have waited so long to officially record and release some of these?  A studio version of “Treetop Flyer” didn’t come out until 1991!

Far and away the best cut on CS&N’s Demos is an early version of “Long Time Gone”.  It has standout bass and percussion by Stills and a great vocal by Crosby (no other accompaniment or vocals).  This was in 1968, and it reminds me of a song from 1969… “Come Together” by The Beatles.  That prominent bass part and no guitar would have made “Long Time Gone” so unique if they had released it that way.

Quality songs and perfect harmony are the easy takeaways the first time you listen to Crosby, Stills & Nash.  This album led me into buying nearly everything else these three and Neil Young have recorded.

With one of the best debut albums ever, Crosby, Stills & Nash were ahead of the curve with acoustic-based music.  They helped usher in the 1970’s golden age of singer-songwriters and the west coast sound.  The Grammy Awards didn’t miss this significant release.  CS&N won the “Best New Artist” award.  Good call.

Tape Recording to Digital Recording

You hear it all the time.   People still refer to recording as “taping”.  Did you “tape” that show?  Are there “tapes” of that conversation?  Using tape for audio and video recording has been around for decades, but it’s all digital now.

My dad led me into a lifelong interest in recording.  He always owned tape recorders and microphones.  He was an excellent singer who recorded 40 square dance records (45’s) based on popular songs, such as “Those Were The Days”.   They were recorded in professional studios, but he also had portable recorders to copy live performances.

                     (The cover we used for our family’s CD’s of his recordings.)

Dad let me use the recorders too, and taught me how to edit tape. That meant physically cutting the recording tape at an angle to delete something or splice-in another piece of tape.  The splices were held together by special adhesive tape.  This same basic editing technique was used by professionals.

That amazing edit George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick used to link two different versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (at about one minute into the song) was done the same way.  It’s so important to transfer classic tape recordings to digital, because those splices are eventually going to fail.

My first broadcast journalism class at college required me to record an interview on reel-to-reel tape, and then physically edit the tape into a concise news feature, including adding music or sound effects.   When I got a job in radio news, I still edited tape, but mostly  by dubbing the comments we wanted from a portable cassette recorder onto a broadcast tape cartridge to use during the live news reports.

Today it’s all digital recording.  It looks like most reporters are using phones or other small digital devices.  The quality is better than tape.

For music editing, I use Apple’s GarageBand.  But for what?

Some live recordings posted online have noise or applause at the beginning that needs to be trimmed off.  Or, maybe the applause at the end needs fading.  Even purchased live recordings often need such editing.

        (Neil Young performing “This Old House” at Farm Aid.)

Neil Young is one of my favorite artists.  When he first played “This Old House” at Farm Aid, the TV network started to go to a break during the second chorus, but then decided to stay with the song.  That left a hole and some announcer’s talk in the middle of the song.  I had recorded the performance, and I used GarageBand to place a copy of the first chorus seamlessly into the spot of the second chorus.  The song is complete, and now my favorite version of his song is in one of my Neil Young Live playlists. The multi-channels feature of GarageBand makes such editing possible.

When The Beatles’ Anthology series was released, it contained a take of “Good Morning, Good Morning” without those words in it.  I really liked it.  The  lyrics took on a more serious tone, and Ringo’s drum part was accented.  The problem was it sounded sparse, because the horns and lead guitar weren’t included.  GarageBand let me sync the original version with this take, and put in the missing horns and guitar.  This new version doesn’t take the place of the original, but it sounds great.

Image result for smile album cover

When Brian Wilson shelved the Smile album by The Beach Boys in 1967, the songs and pieces of recordings found their way to bootlegs.  Fans had no idea how to assemble those fragments into an album.  Finally, Brian released a solo version of Smile in 2004.  Then we could assemble The Beach Boys version (which is better) using GarageBand or other editing tools.

One more sample.  On Matchbox Twenty’s Mad Season album there was an unlisted orchestral reprise of the song “You Won’t Be Mine”.  It’s excellent, but it makes an even better introduction to the song.  Editing allowed me to place the dramatic orchestral piece first, and then over the final fading chord, start “You Won’t Be Mine” with that soft piano opening.  It’s magic.

Those are just some of the ways being able to record and edit makes the music even more satisfying.

Of course that just barely scratches the surface of what Garage Band type apps can do.  Musicians are recording entire albums.  Everyone can on a recording studio!

Oh, and a friend recently told me how much she enjoyed the music I had given her by saying “Thank you for the tapes.”  They were CD’s.

Eagles…1972-1980

Somehow, the “West Coast Sound” was led by 3 Midwesterners and a Texan.  Glenn Frey was from Michigan, Randy Meisner from Nebraksa, Bernie Leadon from Minnesota, and Don Henley from Texas.  They were all drawn to Los Angeles, California.  At the Troubadour club they became friends with other artists, including John David Souther, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt.  All four of the future Eagles had experience playing in country rock bands that weren’t very successful.

Eventually, they were brought together when they were hired to back Linda Ronstadt on her 1971 “Silk Purse” tour.  There are a couple excellent live cuts they performed with Linda…”Birds” (by Neil Young) and “I Fall To Pieces” (by Patsy Cline).  Those two cuts were on her 1972 self-titled album, and are available online.  By the way, Ronstadt didn’t really make it big until 1974.  After the tour, the guys formed the band “Eagles”.

           Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey

Their first album, Eagles, was released in June of 1972, and despite the quality of the album, it wasn’t a major hit.  I loved the Eagles instantly, and didn’t realize their album only reached #22 on the Billboard chart, and that their singles were not rated especially high…”Take It Easy” #12, “Witchy Woman #9, and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” #22.

Their second album, Desperado, released in 1973, used the concept of musicians as outlaws.   It contained the now classic songs “Tequila Sunrise” and “Desperado”, but neither of those singles hit the Top 40, and the album only reached #41.  What did the Eagles have to do to really break through?

For their next album On The Border they added a lead guitarist, Don Felder (a Californian), and changed producers, from Glyn Johns to Bill Szymczyk (he couldn’t buy a vowel).  The album had more of the rock feel that Frey & Henley wanted, and they released “Already Gone” as a single.  It charted, but only to #32.  Next they tried “James Dean”.  It only went to #77.  Then in late 1974, they finally released the song that would break things wide open for the Eagles.   “Best Of My Love” hit #1 on both the Top 40 and Adult Contemporary charts.  Ironically, it was one of two songs Glyn Johns had produced before the change, and it has a country rock sound.  You might remember that the single had a bit of an unusual edit and was shorter than the album version.

The Eagles were finally soaring.  On The Border went double Platinum (2-million albums sold), and eventually Eagles and Desperado went Platinum too.  “Best Of My Love” was the start of five straight top 5 singles, 3 hitting #1.

In 1975, the Eagles released One Of These Nights.  The main hits were the title track (which mixes rock & disco), “Take It To The Limit” (Randy Meisner’s only lead vocal on one of their hits) and Grammy winner “Lyin’ Eyes”, which features one of the Eagles’ best arrangements.  If you’ve never listened really closely to it, give it a try, and notice how the accompaniment varies beautifully with the changing verses.  The album was a huge success, topping the charts and going quadruple Platinum.  The writing team of Frey and Henley was working at a high level, and while they were recording their next and best studio album, their label made a smart move.

The Eagles Greatest Hits (1971-1975) is one of the best Greatest Hits albums ever assembled, and the biggest seller.  That’s not only because the songs and performances are exceptional, but since the previous studio albums had not sold as well as they should have, “come lately” fans could catch up in one great collection.  It was the best selling American album of the 20th Century…over 29-times Platinum in the U.S., with a worldwide total of 42-million.  Update:  (August of 2018) The album is now certified as the #1 album in history, with sales in the U.S. over 38-million, and the worldwide total well over 50-million.

Bernie Leadon had left the Eagles after the last studio album, mostly because he didn’t like the band moving away from country rock.  His replacement was guitarist and singer-songwriter Joe Walsh.  Walsh had success with The James Gang, and his solo albums.  He also had an off-beat sense of humor and drug problems, so it was a bit of a surprise when he joined the Eagles.  Glenn Frey,  Don Henley, and Randy Meisner had recorded with Walsh for his terrific solo album So What , released at the end of 1974.  Henley and Walsh co-wrote the song “Falling Down”, and it has the line “Burning the candle at both ends, twice the light in half the time.”  Too often that’s the rock star life, and the line would have fit in with the tone of their next album.

One of the most iconic albums ever…Hotel California.

The 1977 album opens with three killer cuts…”Hotel California”, “New Kid In Town”, and “Life In The Fast Lane”.  On the singles chart the three reached #1, #1, and #11 respectively.  Probably the only reason “Life In The Fast Lane” didn’t reach the top is because of the unprecedented use of swearing at one point in the lyrics.  Joe Walsh had played that great guitar lick during an Eagles rehearsal, and Don Henley and Glenn Frey took the songwriting from there.  Henley swears the phrase “life in the fast lane” had never been used before, and now it’s part of our language.  Among the highlights of Hotel California are the rousing duo guitar leads by Felder & Walsh.

Of course Hotel California was a number-one album, and (as of August 2018) has sold 26-million copies in the U.S., with a total of over 40-million worldwide.  It’s the #3 selling album in history.  Don Henley says “Hotel California” is “about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about.”  The song won the Grammy for Record Of The Year.

Imagine the pressure to follow up that level of quality.  That’s why The Long Run wasn’t released until  two years later.   It’s a highly successful album, 7-times Platinum, with the hits “Heartache Tonight” (another #1 and Grammy winner), “The Long Run” and “I Can’t Tell You Why”.  The latter was sung by bassist Timothy B. Schmidt.  He had replaced Randy Meisner, who said he left because of exhaustion and disagreements with the other band members.

He was not alone.  The Eagles broke up in July of 1980.  Their label, Elektra, released the Eagles Live album, recorded mostly during their last tour.  It included the exquisite vocal performance of “Seven Bridges Road”.  Unfortunately, that was the only harmony the band felt at that time.  They split up saying they’d only get back together when “hell freezes over”…but that’s a story for another article.

(The Eagles…Hell Freezes Over article is posted.)